Christopher Marlowe: the Elizabethan James Bond

The playwright who blazed a trail for Shakespeare was a drinker, a brawler, a ladies’ man and very likely a spy. Over 400 years on, his life and death still fascinate

It was one of the original murder mysteries.

On May 30th, 423 years ago, a fight broke out in a tavern in south-east London. In the aftermath, one man lay dead. Probably not an unusual occurrence in Elizabethan England. Except that the man’s name was Christopher Marlowe.

Before Shakespeare, there was Marlowe: Marlowe the trailblazer, the originator of Elizabethan drama. Although they were born only two months apart, Shakespeare went on to write countless plays that would seal his place as the greatest writer in the English language. Marlowe wrote only four, and died at the age of 29. Despite this, it’s fair to say that – without Marlowe – there would have been no Shakespeare, or at least not in the sense we know him.

Marlowe’s first play, Tamburlaine the Great, was one of the first English plays to use blank verse, and its themes, structure, and language would become the template for what is known as “the mature phase of the Elizabethan theatre”. Many of his more famous lines have become common parlance:


"Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?"
Hero and Leander

"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ileum?"
Doctor Faustus

"When all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that are not heaven."
Doctor Faustus

While critical reaction to his work has been mixed in the intervening years, Marlowe is today widely regarded as one of the originators of Elizabethan drama. Indeed, it is a testament to his writing that over 400 years later – at a time when very few pre-Shakespearean English plays are revived – all four of Marlowe’s plays (Tamburlaine the Great, The Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus and Edward II) are still performed.

Born in 1564, Marlowe and his life are more of a mystery to us than Shakespeare’s. As with many of the writers from that era, all that remains are legal records or other official documents. When it comes to their personal life, things get much trickier. Especially with Marlowe, as various myths and legends have grown around him since his death.

What is known is that he attended Cambridge and received a Bachelor of Arts degree there in 1584. And this is where the first of the Marlowe conspiracy theories arise. Apparently, the heads of the university were hesitant to award him his degree, believing that he had converted to Roman Catholicism. However, the Privy Council (a body of advisers to the monarch) intervened, telling the university that his absence had been due to unspecified “affaires” on “matters touching the benefit of his country”.

Marlowe was duly awarded his degree. This intervention by the Privy Council has led many to believe that Marlowe was a secret agent working for Sir Francis Walsingham’s intelligence service. It is believed one of the “affaires” he was involved in may have been the thwarting of the Babington Plot, a plot to assassinate the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and her chief ministers and put the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne.

While there is no direct evidence to support the theory that Marlowe was a spy, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence. Along with long absences from university, accounts from the university show that he spent lavishly on food and drink at a time when his own income would not have supported it. He was also arrested in 1592 for his alleged involvement in the distribution of counterfeit coins in the Netherlands. He was sent to be dealt with by the Lord Treasurer but there was no charge or imprisonment. This may have been because it was another one of his spying missions. If we add to this his reputation as a drinker, a brawler who was often in trouble with the law, and a ladies’ man, Marlowe starts to sound like an Elizabethan James Bond.

Marlowe’s patron Thomas Walsingham also had an interesting pedigree. He was related to Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, and had been engaged on a number of occasions by Sir Francis in intelligence operations against Catholic plots. However, Walsingham was also a literary patron and was very supportive of the young playwright – indeed, Marlowe was a frequent house guest of Walsingham’s.

It is believed that Marlowe was also a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, and may have been a member of an organisation known as The School of Night, made up of men like Raleigh who discussed philosophical and scientific matters and had no time for the Church’s superstitions. As Marlowe wrote in The Jew of Malta:

"I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance."

He is also quoted as saying that he found religious belief similar to being “afeared of bugbears and hobgoblins”. It was a dangerous time to hold such views and they may have led to his death.

In May 1593, a former housemate of Marlowe’s named Thomas Kyd was arrested for posting “lewd and mutinous libels” around London. Upon a search of his lodgings, a document was found containing “vile heretical conceits denying the eternal deity of Jesus Christ”. Under torture, Kyd claimed it belonged to Marlowe and a warrant was issued for Marlowe’s arrest. The charges were extremely serious and punishable by death. Marlowe was ordered to appear before the Privy Council; however, before he had the chance to do so, he was murdered in what at the time was believed to be a drunken brawl in a tavern in Deptford.

It was claimed that Marlowe had been drinking with three other men in the tavern and that he had gotten into an argument with one of the men – Ingram Frizer – about “the reckoning” or the bill. The argument had turned violent and Frizer stabbed Marlowe above the right eye, killing him instantly. An inquest held after Marlowe’s death concluded that Frizer had acted in self-defence, and he was pardoned. Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of St Nicholas in Deptford.

However, various conspiracy theories have grown around Marlowe’s death. As it turned out, the men hadn’t been in a tavern at all; they had been in a safe house for government agents and the other men were secret agents in the employ of Thomas Walsingham. Given this fact, many doubt the veracity of the evidence given by the men at the inquest. Some disputed that the fight and the outcome as described were even possible, while others (including surgeons) insisted that such a wound could not have possibly resulted in instant death.

There are as many conspiracy theories about Marlowe’s death as there are about JFK’s. Because the men were secret agents, it’s suggested that his death was a government-sponsored assassination. It’s also suggested that his death may have been ordered by Raleigh and other members of the School of Night, who may have feared that, during torture, Marlowe might give up their secrets. Another theory is that members of the Privy Council were responsible because they feared that Marlowe might reveal them to be atheists. Queen Elizabeth herself has even been named as being behind the assassination.

Some theories go as far as to suggest that Marlowe may have faked his own death so as to avoid being tried and executed for atheism. Having done so, he fled to Italy where he settled and began writing again. The results? Oh, just a few little pieces such as Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest, among others. Yes, the final, great Marlowe conspiracy theory is that it was he who wrote Shakespeare’s most famous plays.

But that one is probably best taken with a pinch of salt.

Further reading:

The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe by Charles Nicholl

The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs

Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy by Park Honan